Stephan Thelen makes math highly musical.
While there may already be a musical genre known as “Math Rock,” the Swiss guitarist takes the concept to an entirely new level. Whether it be with his band, Sonar, or as a solo artist, Thelen strives to make mathematical rhythms operate in ways most musicians would never even conceive of, let alone attempt. When the fact he teaches Mathematics comes to light, one cannot help but say aloud, “Well, of course he does!” But while most artists try to separate their artistic lives from their “real” ones, Thelen embraces the two, and makes them symbiotic.
Some people prefer to stay away from this type of music, feeling it has no “soul,” or deep emotion behind the playing. That is not an issue for Thelen or the musicians he works with. Anyone listening to his music will be taken on a deep, intertwining, complex, but ultimately rewarding journey.
After finding kindred musical spirits for Sonar (guitarist Bernhard Wagner, bassist Christian Kuntner, and drummer Manuel Pasquinelli) in 2010, the band embarked on performing and recording, ultimately assembling and releasing their first album, A Flaw of Nature (2011). An EP called Skeleton Groove followed in November of 2012, followed a month later by Live at Bazillus. Thelen’s use of tri-tones helped the band create and establish its sound, which continued to mature and establish itself. With each album, the growing confidence of the musicians becomes more and more evident.
Continuing to gain momentum, the band released Static Motion in 2014, and Black Light the following year. This was the album that put Sonar on the CirdecSongs radar, with its intricate polyrhythms and interlocking guitars. When it was released, it was half-jokingly called, “The King Crimson album that band never recorded.” Similarites were easily found between the two, but the differences between Sonar and the mighty Crimson stood out even more.
Sonar’s sound is a study of economy in motion. No one in the band overplays. They are the epitome of “less is more.” The primary key to the music is for each player to leave a pocket of space for the others to play in. If one member played his part alone, the listener might not think there was much going on. Combined, however, we are inundated with subtle but highly intricate sounds not easily duplicated. The vast majority of these compositional ideas come from Thelen, but the rest of the band brings the music to life.
Sonar took things to another level with the release of Vortex in the spring of 2018. In addition to the core members, the band added the looping and soundscapes of guitarist David Torn, who had been brought on to produce the album. Torn improvised his sounds over the set compositions played by the band. The result was the perfect mix of the established and the ethereal, with Torn’s unusual tones weaving in, out and around what Sonar was playing. As if to show Vortex was no fluke, Sonar released Live at Moods in the fall of that year. The live set brings forth everything that happened in the studio, and then some. Master bassist, producer, and re-mix artist Bill Laswell de-constructed and re-constructed a pair of Sonar tracks, culminating in The Bill Laswell Mix Translations, which was released this past April. All of these releases can be found on the band’s Bandcamp web site.
The Sonar sound is considered “dry” by guitarists. That is to say, they don’t use effects to enhance their sound. Not one to rest on his laurels, Thelen decided to embark on a journey in an effects-driven direction. The result was his solo effort, Fractal Guitar, a record awash with effects that create a deep, rich, multi-dimensional sound. Many of those sounds are driven by a delay effect which the album is named after. To be certain, similarities to Sonar can be drawn, but Fractal Guitar is definitely an entity unto itself. Featuring contributions from the likes of Torn, U8 touch guitarists Markus Reuter and Matt Tate, guitarists Henry Kaiser and Barry Cleveland among others, Thelen has found a way to take his mathematical compositions to even higher emotional planes.
Thelen is already hard at work on the next project, a new album for Sonar, once again featuring Torn. This time, the band intentionally left room for Torn’s contributions, which has yielded some spectacular results. Thelen continues to assemble, deconstruct, and reconstruct what the band did over five days in the studio.
On a personal level, Thelen strikes one as a man of deep intellectualism and a sharp, dry wit. His explanations of his musical methodology can seem rather academic, but that only makes sense. He is an academic! It would have been interesting to speak to him while he had access to a dry erase board. No doubt the marker would be flying all over the place, drawing connections heretofore unimagined by the student between melodies, harmonies, and rhythms. To be certain, it would be a master class.
Stephan Thelen took some time out of his day to speak to CirdecSongs from his home outside of Zurich.
CirdecSongs: How did Sonar come together? How did you guys find one another?
Stephan Thelen: I was playing in a theater, and Bernard was in the audience. He came to see that production. He liked what he heard, so he stayed around and we chatted afterwards. He told me he was also a guitar player – and played loops and stuff – so we got to know each other a little bit and tried a few things out. We sort of talked about doing something together, but at the time I had the feeling that either I was gonna do something really good, or I was not gonna do it at all. So I was sort of waiting for a good idea for a band.
Then I remembered that I had this special tuning for a guitar I once used, and I thought maybe we could use that tuning as the ground for a new sound, a new project. I talked to him about it, and he liked the idea. So we started looking for a bass player and a drummer. I knew Christian (Kuntner), the bass player, and he knew a young drummer from a Nik Bärtsch clinic (Manuel Pasquinelli), where they met. So we emailed each other and found a date, came together, and played. And that was it!
From the first hour we played together it was just clear that this was exactly the right (personnel). No auditions, nothing! It just worked perfectly! I had some songs that I wrote for the band. We played them, and it just worked very, very well. It was an exciting feeling. We played some gigs together, and that worked, too! And we eventually recorded the first album (A Flaw of Nature, 2011).
How would you define the unifying theme behind your group?
I’ve had so many projects over the years. I really wanted to do something special. It had to be something nobody has done before. That was my main idea. It had to be unique in many ways. So we pushed the extreme, and tried to do things you wouldn’t normally do. It was an experiment in “let’s be radical in a lot of ways, and see what happens.”
A big influence for me was remembering what I liked as a little kid. What impressed me as a young child and teenager? I found that I like to construct things. I’m not necessarily a musician who likes to jam for hours. I’m more the guy who constructs things, and composes them in a certain way. So that was really what I wanted to do with this band. That’s why we had no improvisation at all in the beginning. It was just completely composed. We sort of do a lot of improvisation now, but that’s because we know each other really well, and we know there are restrictions to what we would do and what we would not do. But in the beginning, it was just all composed music.
What’s the best part about playing in Sonar?
What always amazes me is the energy we can produce. If you’re composing, it’s more intellectual work. You’re just thinking about things, and trying to make the right things fit together. But as soon as you play, there’s this thing that you can’t really describe. It’s sort of magic. Something happens that wouldn’t happen if you play alone or compose alone. It’s just something in the air that works between the people. It has a lot to do with the energy that can be produced and the mystery, you know? That is something I enjoy the most.
We may think we know, but whom does the band cite as influences?
There is a list I wrote on my homepage, which were influences for Sonar. One of the pieces was by Yes: the live version of “The Fish (From YesSongs, 1973).” If you listen to that, the guitar only plays harmonics, like we often do. It’s an odd time signature, it has crispy drumming and it has this HUGE bass. I think if you listen to that track again, you’ll hear a lot of similarities with Sonar.
I’m hearing it in my head as you say that.
(Laughs) And of course personally, I was very influenced by the ‘70s King Crimson. The ’73, ’74 … you know, Larks Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black, Red … that period. That’s the one I really liked. I know a lot of people think I’m more the Discipline fan. Actually I’m not, really. I can see the parallels with the two guitars playing these patterns together, but I think the expression of the (Sonar) music is much more the ‘70s (King Crimson) vibe than the ‘80s. (There was) more mystery (in the ’70s music), and darker things going on. The Discipline band was more sprite for me, something much brighter than the ‘70s.
The addition of David Torn for Vortex was quite the coup. How did that come to pass?
I was in California, visiting (music journalist) Anil (Prasad). He suggested we visit (guitarist) Henry Kaiser, because he’s a friend of Anil’s and lives not too far away. Henry knew Sonar and liked it, so we made the trip to Santa Cruz and visited Henry in his beautiful house. I just sort of popped the question to Henry, “If I were looking for a producer, who would you suggest?” Henry took about three seconds and said, “Well, David Torn.” (Kaiser) knew him, and wrote him an email saying, “There’s this Swiss band you might want to produce. Why don’t you get in touch with them?” And then David and I talked on the phone.
I knew David, of course, from the many CDs of his I had, and I loved his work. I always had. So there was no question to me that this would be a good collaboration. So we arranged everything and flew him (to Switzerland) with his engineer, who he prefers to work with, and we had four fantastic days in the studio.
I love how small the music community really is. You want to think it’s huge, and there’s no way people can get in touch with one another. But a visit and a phone call, and bam! There you are!
Right, right. You have to know the right people. That’s the thing. If you know the right people, you can make almost anything happen. It’s really amazing.
I understand you’re doing more work with Torn, on the heels of Vortex’s success.
We were in the studio with David (a few) weeks ago. We did five full days of recording. We recorded a lot of stuff. Now I’m going through the recordings, finding the best sections, splicing them together, and stuff like that. It’s a pretty big job, but it’s really fun.
That sounds really ambitious. You guys played some really ambitious music last time out. You really needed to be on your toes!
Yeah! We did more improvising this time. For the Vortex album, it was pretty much composed music. David wasn’t supposed to play on everything, really. He brought his guitar with him, but he didn’t really plan on playing that much, because he was originally only the producer. When he’s producing, he doesn’t like to play too much. He likes to do other stuff. But the first thing he played on was so good, we said, “Hey, we have to change our plan and do everything with him.” Which we did, and everything came out really well. But it wasn’t really intended to be a quintet. It was intended to be quartet with maybe a little bit of his guitar.
This time, from the beginning, we planned the pieces so he had some room, some space. So there was a lot more improvisation, a lot more “free” stuff where we knew approximately what we were gonna do, but not precisely. We just let it happen. It was fun. It was really fun. It was challenging, too, because I’m always the guy who’s worried that we have everything on tape right. Do we have this? Do we have that? Is it good enough? It was a big job, but it was fun in the end.
What is the biggest challenge of playing your material live? It’s quite intricate.
It depends a lot on the audience, I think. The challenge is to play well even if the audience isn’t responding. That’s always a big challenge. Usually we’re lucky and we have a very good, attentive audience. And then it works perfectly well. It’s on wheels. It just rolls. I don’t think you could believe that if you just know the recordings. But if you see it live, there’s much more power and much more energy than you would think.
How hard is it to engage the audience right off? Is it something you have to build to?
Well like I said, it depends. There are places where people are very attentive from the beginning and really locked into the music. Then there are other places, venues where people are used to talking to each other while the music is going on. That really annoys me. I find it really difficult to play in a place like that. We’re trying to play in places where we know that won’t happen.
Sonar definitely has a sound. It’s very clean. It’s very regimented. Is this a sound you plan to maintain, or where do you see things going from here?
Well, we added David knowing that he would change a lot, and he does change a lot! What we do is still more or less the same. We have the same clean guitar set-up. The bass now sometimes has distortion in it, but not too much, really. Our sound as a quartet hasn’t changed that much, but we’re adding things to it. We’re adding David, we’ve added other people before, and we’ll probably add people in the future as well. It’s not for sure yet. Maybe we’ll do another record as a quartet, we don’t know. But the next one will certainly be with David. He changes a lot, of course. He’s everywhere. He’s all over the place with his sounds (laughs)!
Let’s talk about Fractal Guitar. What made you decide it was the right time to record a solo album?
A few years ago, I had some pieces that I knew wouldn’t work for Sonar. They were based on a guitar delay (effect), and we don’t use delay in Sonar. There was one piece especially, which is now the title track on the album. That piece was one I really wanted to record, and it was lying around for a few years. I just wanted to do that. I thought okay, we had a break in Sonar, and I just wanted to finish this piece.
So I sent some tracks to Markus (Reuter, U8 touch guitar) and I sent some tracks to the drummer, Benno (Kaiser). Benno recorded a drum track that I really loved, and also what Markus did was great! So I thought I would just continue on this path. I wrote a few more songs using this delay system, and it just grew and grew. I didn’t have much of a plan at the beginning. It was just something I wanted to do. And then I visited Henry at his house. While I was there, we recorded one of his solos. And Bill Walker (guitar, looping) recorded on the same day in the same studio. So, you know, it just evolved and kept on evolving. I asked Manuel to play on a few pieces.
I really took my time. There was no agenda or stress. It slowly evolved, and it was always fun to do. It was never getting tedious, or no friction of any kind. I was just asking my friends if they wanted to play something. They said, “Sure! Send it over! They played something and it just kept growing. It was a really cool experience.
And then at some (point) I felt yeah, I have enough material for an album. Markus said he would like his friend Benjamin (Schäfer) in Berlin to mix it. I said, “Sure, you should try.” I finished everything up, and he started mixing. I visited them in Berlin, and (the mixes) were really cool. I thought, “Yeah, this is gonna be great!” And Leonardo (Pavkovic) from MoonJune (Records) immediately said he would put it out. It was such a good working experience, because everything worked perfectly. So I’m really happy about the album.
For the guitar laymen, tell me more about the “fractal guitar” effect you used, and how it works.
It’s really just a simple (effect), used in a special way. First of all, it’s timed. It works exactly in the rhythm of the music. So it can’t be just any time set on the delay. It has to be the exact right time. Then it’s also used in a way that it creates an odd time signature, so the delay is always in threes, or in fives, or in sevens. Threes is something a lot of people do. If you listen to U2, for instance, they use that a lot. This kind of delay is timed in a hemiolas, it’s called. It’s a three-beat pattern. That’s something (The Edge) does a lot.
I do it a lot in five or in seven, which is pretty uncommon. I don’t know if anybody else does that at all. That’s what you can hear on the title track, for instance. The first phrase I play is immediately repeated in a five-beat pattern delay. So the repetitions form a kind of composition, which is in 5/8 or 5/4. So it’s always in three or five or seven. That’s the characteristic of that delay. It’s a delay with a lot of feedback. It has a lot of feedback. So it’s a delay used in a special way.
Where did the bass line in “Urban Nightscape” come from? It never fails to blow my mind. When I hear it, I want to run and grab my guitar and join in with you guys.
(Laughs) It’s a piece that has been around for quite a while. I played that in other bands as well. Where did that bass line come from? See, the idea was I’m always experimenting with odd time signatures, so in that case it was three sixes and a seven. So you have the bass line, and the first part is always in six the first three repetitions. The fourth line is extended slightly, so that line is in seven. So if you add that up, you get 25. Against that six-plus-six-plus-six-plus-seven, you have a 5/4 signature going on. So that will play five times, and you’ll also have 25 beats. So that’s what’s going on musically. You always have these two different rhythms, with the guitar playing in five and the rhythm section playing in six-plus-six-plus-six-plus-seven. And the bass line just fit into that rhythmic scheme somehow (laughs).
Was there anything special that went into the methodology of making this album?
The basic idea was to invite friends to play. You have to (envision) that on the record, there were never two people playing together. Never. It was always just one person playing to an existing track. Sometimes, I’m really surprised that it sounds so much like a live band. You can practically see the people playing together, and interacting together. But that really never happened. It was all just one person reacting to what already existed.
So that was one idea: to invite friends to play, and to send files via the Internet. We never booked a studio. Well, we had a studio for the drums. But there was no getting together and playing. It was always just one person recording. The other basic idea was to use the fractal delay system. But that was it, really. That was the whole plan.
If you listen to my music, surely you’ll notice that everything is just one pattern. The whole piece, even a piece like “Briefing (for a Descent Into Hell),” which is 17 minutes (long), it’s just one pattern that goes on. Usually, people would say, “That’s so boring. Just one pattern per piece, that’s so cheap and not enough musical information.” But I like to do it in a way that keeps my interest going on.
I always try to find ways to try to make a very simple pattern sound interesting over a long period of time. I can do that by combining different rhythms and odd rhythms, so even if you’re playing something very, very simple, just because it’s displaced in a certain way, it can take over two minutes until it actually repeats. If you have a polyrhythm going on, sometimes it takes a while before the beats really match again. So even if it’s really simple, you have the feeling that it’s always evolving. Actually, it isn’t (laughs). That’s always something I try to do. It’s something I learned from Steve Reich. You know, the minimal composer? I have a book of his where he has certain essays, and that really made sense to me. He said he wants really simple ideas to create complex results. That’s the goal: very simple things which create very complex results.
If you break it down, it’s really, really simple. “Briefing,” for instance, is based on a pattern that has three notes. That’s all! There are 12 notes in the chromatic scale, and we only use three of them. A lot of people look at my music and say it’s harmonically simple. Yeah! That’s because I like that! I like music that’s harmonically simple, but the complexity is somewhere else. It’s in the rhythm and the way these patterns interact with each other. For instance, in “Briefing,” the bassline is also played by the guitar, but it’s played twice as fast. So you’ll always have the same thing going on, but at different speeds. You hear these things, and you know something is going on. But it takes you a while to figure out what it is. Although it’s really simple, it keeps being interesting because of the way it’s constructed.
I always tell people listening to a complex piece of music to find an element they can hold on to, and then let the rest happen around that.
Right! Yes! Absolutely!
You have a really good left brain/right brain split, particularly where math is concerned. There’s something regimented about math, but liberating about music. You’ve managed to split the two equally. That can’t be easy.
Right! Well, that’s something I consciously want to do. I know if you think about music and you try to integrate a lot of mathematical stuff in your music, a lot of people are going to say, “Oh, this is really dry and really intellectual.” So I really found it important from the start that it has this other element, which is not intellectual at all. It’s very primitive and very raw, this kind of energy. It’s like punk. It’s from the stomach. Christian, our bass player, is like that. He plays like a punk bass player, with such energy from the stomach, you know? From the gut. Clearly, he knows what he’s doing. He’s intellectual enough to cope with the music, but he has this raw energy, which is really important for Sonar. That’s something I really want to cultivate, because the intellectual side (of the music) will be there anyway, in the compositions. But the emotional side … that’s something I keep looking for nowadays.
And that’s what’s amazing about David. He can play so emotionally. You wouldn’t believe it! He can play one note, and he’ll bend that note in a certain way over 40 seconds that just tears your heart out! It’s amazing! Other guitarists will play 10,000 notes, you know, hyper fast and scales up and down. But for me, it’s so much more satisfying to see someone really take this note and go on a journey with it. He bends and screams over the top of something Sonar is doing. I think that’s an amazing combination. On the one side, you have this polyrhythmic intellectual stuff going, and on the other side you have this very emotional screaming guitar on top of it. That’s something that really amazed us when we heard it.
It’s true art. You’re not just trying to create something to appeal to the lowest common denominator.
Yeah! I’m trying to make something that excites me. I have to be excited by what we’re doing. I’m mixing this one new piece where precisely that happens. It’s like I’m looking on a field – this three-dimensional field – and I’m trying to make a landscape. I’m trying to let the clouds go by. That’s something that’s so amazing with David. He has these textures he does with his loop machine, so we have this polyrhythmic stuff going on, and he’s like the weather. You know: a tornado will come and then the rain will fall down, and the sun will shine (laughs) … it’s just illuminating this landscape that’s been created by the rhythm section, by Sonar, and he just puts in the colors and the weather.
Going forward, how do you think Fractal Guitar will affect your playing with Sonar?
Well, I just hope that people who like Sonar will get to like the album, and people who like the album will get to like Sonar. I just hope they help each other out. I don’t see it at all as a competition or anything. It’s similar in a way, but it’s also very different. So the two can stand side-by-side without being competitive in any way. I’m just hoping one will help the other out.
Your music is considered “niche” music. You’re a “fringe” band. It’s not exactly the mainstream. How are the economics of the modern music industry affecting your ability to make the music you want to make?
Yeah, that’s an interesting topic. And I think you talked to Markus about that, too, didn’t you?
Yes, I did.
Well, the thing is – and that’s always been the case with me, personally – I wanted to study music when I was 20 years old. I went to my dad and said, “I want to study music. What do you think?” And he said, “Music? No way! You’re gonna starve if you study music (laughs)!” I said, “But that’s what I want to study.” He said, “Well, you can do it if you want. But I won’t support you. I’ll only support you if you do something else. Something real.” I was also very interested in Mathematics, and so I said okay, maybe I can study Mathematics and just do music next to my studies, which I did. As soon as I finished my studies, I got a job as a math teacher, and I kept that going on.
For me, personally, I don’t have to earn any money with music. I earn enough money, teaching math. That supports me and my basic needs. I’m completely independent of any financial considerations when I record music. I know that’s unique in a certain way, because a lot of musicians don’t have that. I also know a lot of musicians who think people like me … that’s a bad sign. It means you should support yourself elsewhere, and do music as a hobby. So a lot of people don’t like the way I do it. But for me personally, it always worked very well. Of course I spend a lot of time teaching, but I have enough time for music and I can still do a lot of things that I do, and that works very well.
Of course it’s difficult for the other guys in Sonar because they … I mean, Manuel is a professional drummer, so he has to earn money. Christian is actually an artist. He does a lot of things in the arts. But he has a family now, so he needs an income, too. So now we’re in the situation where we have to have a certain basic income. We can’t play for free. Fortunately, we are able to get funding from the Swiss Arts Council sometimes, so that’s been a great help. We also have a very good record label with Rare Noise, which also supports us. So we’re getting along okay, you know? There’s no way we can earn a living from that, but we don’t have to. For Manuel, it’s not a full-time job being in Sonar. It’s something he can do as one part of the many things that he does.
How do you look at streaming in terms of Spotify, Apple Music and the like? I’m an old-school guy, and I don’t care for streaming, but where do you sit?
Well I’m also an old-school guy, absolutely. (Streaming) feels so wrong, and it feels so terrible. I really find it disturbing how people grow up thinking (streaming) is normal and music is free and you can get it anywhere. That’s something I really can’t relate to. I think musicians should be paid and they should be paid well, because they’re doing important things. A culture without music would be terrible, in my opinion. Life would be much sadder if there was no music around. I think (music) is a very important contribution to society. And I think it should be paid as well as other (occupations) are paid. And that’s definitely not the case with streaming. You earn next to nothing with streaming.
What’s on your bucket list, musically? What do you want to do that you haven’t done?
I always wanted to write for an orchestra. That’s something I really haven’t done. I’ve written some things I recorded on my computer, like simulations. I would like to do more chamber music. I’m hoping to do an album one day with chamber music for a string quartet and piano pieces and stuff like that. I already wrote one piece for percussion ensembles. I’m probably gonna write some more. I want to do a second Fractal Guitar album. It will take a while. I’m sure it’s not gonna be finished soon, but that’s something I definitely want to do. And write more compositions for different ensembles. And play with other people! Play with people I like. With Sonar, the idea is that we are a quartet, which we can play alone. Or, we can add people, like we’ve added David for this album.
Maybe next album, it will be somebody else. It depends on how long David wants to play with us or how long we want to play with him (laughs). It’s working really well now, but there are also difficulties, because he lives in New York and we live here. So it’s not that simple. Getting him over here is always very expensive with flights and his gear. It’s really a challenge. So we’re open to anything that presents itself in the future with playing with other people or playing something completely different, like with strings or a percussion ensemble. I don’t know. We’ll see.
My goal is to use this musical concept I have with these very simple cells of ideas that grow into complex things. I want to try that out in very different contexts. I think there’s still a lot to do in that direction.